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State Lawmakers Not Just Blowing Smoke About Rejoining RGGI

But they butt heads over how to divvy up funds raised by participating in initiative to curb carbon pollution from power plants

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New Jersey stepped closer yesterday to rejoining a multistate initiative to fight climate change, but is far from reaching a consensus about how funds raised by participating in it will be allocated.

In an indication of the priority given it by lawmakers, the Senate Environment and Energy Committee once again voted to have the state sign on with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, an effort to curb carbon pollution from power plants in nine states.

The state had been part of RGGI until former Gov. Chris Christie unilaterally pulled it out of the pact early in his first term and three times vetoed legislative efforts to rejoin it. Gov. Phil Murphy promised to rejoin the initiative during the gubernatorial campaign, and lawmakers moved quickly to fulfill that pledge by approving the bill (S-611/S-874).

The committee, in its first meeting of the new session, also approved a measure that would direct all of the initial $300 million raised by rejoining RGGI to go to programs to promote the use of electric vehicles, an idea that had only tepid support from environmentalists.

Road to electric vehicles

That faces a tougher road as Sen. Bob Smith, the chairman of the committee and sponsor of the bill (S-612) acknowledged. With transportation being the single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions, Smith favors using the first $300 million raised by joining RGGI to jump start the electrification of the sector.

But few endorsed that approach, a decision that would rule out funding for other ways to combat climate change — from financing energy-efficiency projects to providing money to sequester carbon in tidal marshes to planting trees in deforested lands.

Smith, a referee in past intramural contests among environmentalists over divvying up open-space funds, wanted no part in a free-for-all over a new pot of money. He urged the groups to go to the front office and convince the new administration how to allocate funds.

"There's plenty of time to talk about how we spend the money,'' Smith said, adding it will be up to a year before the state can start disbursing funds raised by the sale of carbon emission credits in the program.

In the past, when New Jersey was part of the program, it received somewhere in the range of $50 million a year from RGGI proceeds, a number that is expected to rise slightly because of changes in the program.

Constitutional question

To make sure that money is allocated to clean energy projects, the committee also voted out a resolution (SCR-40) to dedicate money from the initiative to fund clean energy and greenhouse emission reduction programs.

In the past, the Christie administration repeatedly diverted RGGI money and funds raised from a surcharge on utility customers, siphoning off more than $1.5 billion that was supposed to go to fund clean-energy programs to solve budget deficits.

As in the past, business lobbyists opposed having the state rejoin the multistate initiative. Sara Bluhm, vice president of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, argued New Jersey already has lowered emissions from power plants far more than neighboring states.

"We are going to increase our costs without having any environmental benefit,'' Bluhm said. "Joining RGGI won't do anything to lower emissions from Pennsylvania and Ohio,'' she added, referring to two states that are not part of the multistate initiative.

But supporters of the program countered the cost of not dealing with climate change is even more dire.

"If we don't act we'll see an economic catastrophe in some of our communities,'' predicted Doug O'Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, citing the damage from storms like Hurricane Sandy on coastal towns.

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